Oklahoma City’s Vietnamese Community Cooks Up Culture and Community
A tiered gateway marks the entrance at North Classen Blvd. and NW 23rd Street. A circular sign emblazoned with a golden dragon hangs from the structure like a gong, proclaiming “Asian District” in extravagant font. Situated among architectural marvels and historic districts like the Gold Dome and Oklahoma City University—and the Milk Bottle Building, located on a former strip of Route 66—Oklahoma City’s Asian District thrives as a space of community. This Midwestern enclave is home to folks of various Asian heritages, but the city’s large Vietnamese population has given the district its colloquial name, “Little Saigon,” and invigorated its culinary scene with more than 30 restaurants.
Fleeing the war, Vietnamese refugees began immigrating to Oklahoma nearly five decades ago in the mid-1970s. By 1980, about five years after the fall of Saigon, the state’s Vietnamese population had reached more than 6,000. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Oklahoma is currently home to more than 16,000 people of Vietnamese descent, with most settling in either Tulsa or Oklahoma City. In Oklahoma City specifically, about one in 60 locals are Vietnamese American.
In an article by Jacob McCleland for KGOU, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Historical Society Bob Blackburn noted how the influx of Vietnamese immigrants helped revive Oklahoma City. Refugees, eager for employment opportunities and a low cost of living, moved to places struggling to recover from white flight.
“[Vietnamese immigrants] are moving into areas that others had abandoned, and they are contributing to this vitality a lot of good restaurants, a lot of good bakeries,” said Blackburn. “New attorneys, new physicians, dentists, doctors."
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Today, the modes of Vietnamese-owned businesses in the district range from salons to retail boutiques. Yet it’s arguably food—the most delicious form of intangible heritage—that brings together those inside and outside the Oklahoma City Vietnamese community. Even the very Oklahomian Milk Bottle Building housed the banh mi shop Saigon Baguette from 1999 until the owner’s passing. Throughout the restaurant’s duration, the staple pork sandwich cost patrons a consistent $1.85.
Lien Le, owner of Pho Lien Hoa, another local restaurant founded in the '90s, spoke to David Christopher about her clientele for a NewsOK.com story about the Asian District.
“Non-Vietnamese who come here love it,” she said. “They always come back."
While it was named the fast-food capital of America by Fortune Magazine, Oklahoma City benefits from the mandatory infusion of fish sauce and fresh herbs that accompanies a commitment to traditional Vietnamese fare. Most Vietnamese establishments in the Asian district specialize in pho, capitalizing on the dish’s popularity in non-Vietnamese circles.
There’s Pho Cuong Restaurant where, for an extra dollar, you can heap on beansprouts, cilantro, and lime until the bowl is teeming with taste. The noodles and easily accessible condiments are fan favorites at Pho Thai Nguyen, while Pho Ca Dao, known for its savory bun bo hue broth and beef stew, gives vegan patrons the opportunity to indulge in the classic meal by swapping out meat stock for mushroom broth. These three restaurants dot a two-mile jaunt down Classen Blvd., joining community and place in a partnership that is as reciprocal as it is convenient.
“I’ve had people come in and they are in tears because they’ve found a product from back home they’ve been missing for years.”Hai Luong of Super Cao Nguyen
Lido Restaurant, featuring Vietnamese, Chinese, and French cuisine, was the first Asian District Vietnamese restaurant with an English menu in Oklahoma City. Mentions of vermicelli and lemongrass pepper the menu alongside descriptions of frog legs and BBQ pork—a transnational sampling. Super Cao Nguyen, an international supermarket founded by Vietnamese refugees Tri Luong and Kim Quach in 1979, captures a similar mélange of foods and cuisines. Enjoying its fifteenth year at its current location in the Asian District, the market’s aisles brim with fresh shrimp, baguettes, rose water, sticky rice baskets, seaweed, quail eggs, and rice. Placards direct the customer towards various Filipino, Hawaiian, or Mediterranean products, making it easy for Super Cao Nguyen patrons to both experiment with new foods and find comfort in familiar flavors.
Hai Luong helps his parents run the store along with his two brothers Ba and Remy.
“It’s a melting pot,” Hai Luong told Sue Halpern and Bill McKibben for a story in Smithsonian Magazine. “I’ve had people come in and they are in tears because they’ve found a product from back home they’ve been missing for years.”
On June 9, 2018, Oklahoma’s Asian District celebrated its first Asian Night Market Festival in the park between Lido Restaurant and the Milk Bottle Building, another unofficial entrance marker to the Asian District.
Attendees participated in martial arts demonstrations, appreciated cultural dance routines, and browsed the food options made available to them by Super Cao Nyugen and other local Asian vendors and food trucks. There was bibimbap, bahn mi from the Vietnamese-owned Lee’s Sandwiches, and, of course, steaming bowls of pho.
As Oklahoma City’s Vietnamese and Asian population continues to expand and develop along with its residents, the future of a centrally located district—and thus 30+ pho variants within a roughly ten-block radius—is unassured. One thing is for certain: thanks to a community of immigrants, to pass through Oklahoma City’s Asian District is to leave with your hunger satisfied.